I was browsing the kids' department at BAM with my daughters the other day--aren't kids just the perfect excuse to be un-adult?--when I came across this beautiful cover for The Shifter, by Janice Hardy. My daughter Ana wanted to read it but didn't want to blow so much allowance on a hardcover; I offered to go halfsies on it, and let her keep it as long as I got to read it first. :-)
I was intrigued by this book--aside from the obvious SpecFic elements--because it seems to straddle the MG/YA line, just like my own writing does. I had a totally serendipitous chance to chat with a literary agent the other day, who asked, pretty much out of the blue, about my own writing, and I was fairly incoherent in trying to explain that I write YA but with protagonists that are closer to MG in age. In hindsight, I should have said something like "the low end of YA," but I hadn't been thinking in terms of making an elevator pitch. Shame on me. Anyway, I'm trying to get a feel for whether I should go one way or another, at least as an unpublished writer, so as not to defy easy classification. I look at books that are clearly MG, and I often feel like I can't write that. Sometimes--particularly when it's SpecFic--they have a twee, almost fairy-tale-ish tone about them that I personally would find condescending; other times . . . not, but I still don't feel capable of writing like some the samples I've looked at. They tend to use a more limited vocabulary than I usually want to use, and be more superficial in the emotions of their characters. (I'm not saying this represents all of MG; just what I often seem to pick up.) When I analyze my own writing, I seem much closer in tone to the YA I read--and I enjoy reading YA in general more than I enjoy reading MG--but I tend to write about younger characters.
I want to write the sorts of books I wanted to read when I was that age. (Which I still enjoy reading now. ;-) ) I guess early YA is a good way to put it. I know that there is such a thing, because I see it mentioned from time to time. (Or maybe, and here's the point, there's such a thing as "late MG," though I've never heard of that, that straddles the line from the other side.)
So anyway, I was intrigued by this book because it was shelved in the kids' section, not the teen section, but when I picked it up, it didn't seem to fall into that twee/unsophisticated category I don't care for. I mean, here are the first two paragraphs:
Stealing eggs is a lot harder that stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack, and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don't like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it's close. And they squawk something terrible.
The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out.
This to me is a lot more sophisticated. I love the voice of this narrator. I love the matter-of-fact discussion of stealing--this suggests already that it will be a morally challenging work, which is one of the things that I think seem to separate YA from MG. (It also kind of reminds me of some of my own first person writing, if it's not too presumptuous of me to say so.)
So maybe this book's presence in the children's section was an indication that the kind of kids' books I like to read and write could possibly be MG rather than YA. I decided to read it and find out.
This book is a lot of fun. If you like to read YA or if you are buying a book as a gift for a kid, I recommend it. It features an intriguing magic system and world-building that just inspire my imagination. I totally lost myself in this world, and I loved Nya, the protagonist. I will certainly read the next two books in the trilogy.
From a writing standpoint, there is a lot for me to learn from Hardy. What really struck me as I read--because this is precisely what I'm working on at the moment--is how the tension on Nya never lets up. Literally. I don't know if I've ever read a book, written for any age, that managed that as beautifully as this one. Nya seriously never has a moment of peace. Resolving one problem always leads to the next one. And the story consists of one difficult moral dilemma followed by another. And these aren't easy choices. Nya repeatedly has to make decisions about whom to help and whom to let suffer--or whom to make suffer. Nya is a likable character who wants to do the right thing at every turn. It's not clear that she does do the right thing each time, but if she fails anywhere, it's not because she doesn't care. (And Hardy puts in repeated "save the cat" moments to make it clear that Nya really wants to help everyone that she can. Sometimes you just can't do right by everyone, though, no matter how badly you want to.)
My favorite books and stories, YA or adult, are those that pose challenging moral questions to the reader and don't answer them. I don't like being preached at, but I do like being invited to think.
It's really hard to put this book down, between the moral dilemmas and the constant worrying about what danger Nya is going to face next.
There are ways in which I think The Shifter could have been improved. Often it felt like Hardy glossed over details, like she was racing to get to the next big thing. Often I was unable to picture a setting in my mind. A character would do something that I hadn't realized was possible because my concept of the scene wasn't accurate and needed hasty revising. This certainly could have been my failure as a reader, but it's not something I often encounter in my reading, leading me to believe it was the book. Similarly, the political history and the rules of magic often felt glossed over. There were plenty of times when I was confused, and if I was confused, how much more confused would a less experienced reader be?
Additionally, there was a section at the end where all of Nya's friends basically hash over those moral dilemmas, and reassure Nya that her choices were, in fact, the right ones. (Okay, they are arguing the point among themselves, but the argument is pretty quickly resolved in Nya's favor.) As a reader, I didn't care for this. First of all, the climax had passed and I felt that continuing the story for so many more pages got anti-climactic. Beyond that, I think it cheapens the moral dilemmas. Remember my point about books that raise moral questions but don't answer them? (This doesn't exactly violate that preference, because the opinions of characters do not necessarily translate into a definitive answer. I certainly still think there is room for debate on whether or not Nya made the right choices.) Having the characters reassure Nya at the end that she did nothing wrong makes the guilt that Nya suffers feel like Mary Sue guilt--this is unfortunate, because I don't see Nya as Mary Sue-ish in general.
(If you're not familiar with Mary Sue guilt, it goes more or less like this: Protagonists should not be perfect, we are told, so the author gives Mary Sue something to have done and feel guilty for. But the author can't bear to give Mary Sue any actual faults, so instead it's a fault that Mary Sue perceives in herself, that nobody else can possibly agree with. At the end, in the big reveal, where everybody tells poor suffering Mary Sue how much they love her, all the other characters reassure her that they never saw her as flawed at all. That really isn't a fair description of what's happening here, but that scene, for me, treaded the line. I think it would have helped if Aylin, the character who questioned Nya's choices, had stuck to her conviction that Nya was wrong to do as she did. She could have stayed on Nya's side, and kept being her friend, but still believed that some of her actions were ultimately wrong. From a reader's standpoint, having likable characters who disagree reinforces the point that there are no easy answers, and gives readers permission to form their own opinions.)
In the end, I'm not sure if this book really answered my question about YA versus MG. It was shelved in the kids' section, and Harper Collins has it categorized as a children's book, but Nya appears to be around fifteen or sixteen--I don't think we are given an exact age, but I seem to recall her mentioning early on that she could pass for eighteen--putting us right in YA, agewise. There isn't any overt sexuality, that I can recall. There are some twitterpations of like, and the suggestion that Nya and Danello will have romantic possibilities as the series progresses. I seem to recall some unexplicit mentions of bad things that could happen to homeless kids, and maybe an unexplicit reference to the existence of prostitution. Certainly YA can get a lot heavier than that. If I'd simply read this book, I'd probably call it YA though, based on the sophistication of the writing--vocabulary-wise, this book makes no concessions--and on the age of the protagonist.